Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Small Progress!

I've been working a very small portion of the landscape by Lisa's right shoulder...thought I'd put up a quick pic of the mayhem.

As I go, I'm more and more impressed with the level of detail Leonardo achieved (and I was plenty impressed before!), and the infinite subtlety of all the aspects of the portrait. Everything I'm laying in now seems very heavy-handed by aim is to keep layering until I've acheived the proper tonality and subtle smokiness, etc.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


I've started laying in glazes of color in the background. I'm hoping to get the landscape well in hand in the next couple of weeks, so that then I can begin on the dress and parapet. Once all the non-skin areas are in hand, I'll begin laying in the many layers of glazing to complete the flesh tones, hair and veils.

I'm having trouble with the azurite glaze in the sky...the paint is grainy and it shows badly in a transparent glaze. I don't want to substitute another color as the azurite is a beautiful ultramarine color with a slight greenish haze that makes it quite unique. I'll be writing Natural Pigments to see what they recommend as well as regrinding the paint.

Friday, December 10, 2010


During the Renaissance and before, guild carpenters prepared wood panels for painters to paint upon. Often, the panel was already framed; sometimes the panels and frames had also been prepared with gesso and seasoned. There is evidence that the panel on which the Mona Lisa was painted was such a panel.

Some sources claim that the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo was a commission that was made through Leonardo's father, Ser Piero da Vinci, who apparently was acquainted with Francesco del Giocondo. Since Ser Piero died in July of 1504, and Leonardo is thought to have started work on the portrait in 1503, this could be the case. Did Leonardo perhaps choose a previously prepared panel because to him, the painting was a minor commission? hmmmm...

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Here's a test upload of a time-lapse I shot of a little of the progress on the test panel! Hope it works!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving update!

Well, I've begun to add color to selective areas. I thought if I added an ocher overtone to the sleeves, I could soften the modeling there and start bringing the sleeves closer to completion. I've also started adding the landscape in the background. The reddish hue in the lower right of the landscape is a fairly unfinished area in the actual painting, having not progressed much beyond what I've painted in so far. I'm thinking that once the background is a little further along, then I can work the figure more. All my painting is very transparent at this point. Any imperfection in the lower layers is apparent in surface of the piece. I'll have to continue adjusting and softening blends and adding in all the myriad of subtle tones Leonardo painted in.

I've also begun the hero painting! I haven't done much, as you can see. I'm also starting it out differently than the other piece, using washes of black, rather than the umber I used for the previous panel. I'm intending to do a complete greyscale painting first, and add all my colors in after. The Book by Daniel Thompson talks about painting a graduated blue sky over a greyscale underpainting in tempera, and I thought I'd try that, to see what effect that gives.

I also recently found a nice, high-resolution picture of the frame, which has allowed me to draw up a blueprint of the celtic knot pattern for future use. I'm seriously contemplating carving the frame and doing it as "old school" as possible as well.....

More to come!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

...aaaaand; Time To Dry!

Here's Lisa as of now, shot at pretty high resolution so you can see the image much bigger if you'd like. I've blocked in the basic sky tone and blended it around the hair, trying to keep all edges blurred. I'm also still playing with the shadows on the face, evening them up for the time that I'll apply a lead white and vermillion mixture to soften and even everything up in preparation for the final glazes of color to pull out all the complex shadows. I've also begun blocking in the dress and I've done a little more work on the chair and the walls of the parapet. The entire surface is at a point where the panel needs to dry a while, so I'm going to start preparing the cartoon for the hero panel (ah, did you forget I was doing TWO copies?) and I'll transfer the cartoon to the hero panel and begin the underpainting for that. I'm planning on quite a few adjustments, based on the things I learned on the test panel, and I'll post pictures to show the difference!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Again With the Progress!

The above picture shows more modelling to Lisa's face. I've begun adding white lead over the underpainting to see how it softens and blends tones to further create Leonardo's sfumato effect. You can see on the right side of the face how the tonality changes and softens from the translucent overlay of white on the umber underpainting.

I've also found a fantastic article on the Musee Galileo site that analyzes Leonardo's Adoration of theMagi, which he left unfinished. The article shows pictures taken with with a multi spectral camera as well as other images, and sheds further light on how Leonardo prepared his panels, and how he did his preparatory drawings and underpainting. There's also evidence that much of the umber colored paint layer was done at a later date by another artist. Have a look at

What this means is that I'll make adjustments on the hero panel by doing the underpainting using lamp black on the white priming, and I'll lay in the sky fairly early, as Leonardo apparently did on the Adoration. (I'll be blocking in the sky on Test Mona on the soon side, too.)

But for now, it's Halloween weekend, and I'll be reprising my Dr. Zaius costume at a few parties!

Friday, October 22, 2010

...a little more!

Here's a progress shot of the painting as it stands now. I've continued modeling forms on Lisa's face, and I'll begin shaping her hands shortly. The sleeves on the dress will be underpainted all the way up to where they tie onto the bodice of her dress, then layers of black silk gauze will be painted over the top of the finished upper sleeves. I'm thinking it'll be good to lay the color in on the sky before I do much painting on her hair, and may start to indicate the mountains in the background at that time. After the paint on her face dries, I'll begin layering glazes of color into the darker shadows on her face. Then, a layer of white with a little vermillion will be put over the modeling, letting a hint of the undercolor show through. Glazes of color to deepen the flesh tones and model things further will finish the face. There are areas in the shadows on the original where researchers estimate there are 40 layers of glazes present!

I've been reading and re-reading Daniel Thompson's great book on Tempera painting and gleaning much information on possible technique from that.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Quick Peek

Here's a quick update with a new technique I was trying out today. I started to model the forms of the face with non-diluted paint scumbled on with a brush with almost no paint on it. This allowed me to paint on very subtle shading with much more control than trying to model forms with a brush more fully loaded with paint. It also allowed me to easily soften edges wherever needed. This technique is in line with Leonardo's putting down extremely thin paint layers.

But, again, I'm not allowing the panel to dry between sessions, so there are areas that I smudged in doing this layer of work. I'll be letting the panel fully dry now before proceeding!

Oh! I also uploaded a pretty large image this time so the detail can be seen more easily!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

More Progress

This is Mona as she sits now, so to speak. I've added a wash of yellow ochre over the entire panel, as I believe from analyzing unfinished works by Leonardo that the yellow in his underpainting doesn't seem to be aging of the paint layer, but an imprimatura wash of yellow. I've also done some washes of thin black over many areas to tone them darker prior to painting detail in the underpainting. I do a little, then let the paint dry a few days, then do a little more. I've also done plenty of work with a fan blender to help smooth transitions between tones. There are a couple of spots where I didn't let the underlying paint dry enough, and in my haste, smudged the underpainting. Once the darks are established, I'll lay in the light tones as a white lead and vermillion wash over the flesh areas, and then begin adding color.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Gesso Formula

I started off the blog thinking that perhaps getting too bogged down in what I thought were the more mundane details of the project would cause people to tune out. But, Kathy had asked about some specifics, so I thought I'd address that request in a regular post.

My gesso formula was based on measurements given in Ralph Mayer's book, The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques. I used in my final formula, 2 3/4 oz. of Italian rabbit skin glue, from Natural Pigments, and 1 qt. of water. I put the glue and water in a double boiler and let it hydrate overnight. The next day, I melted the glue over low heat on the stovetop and added an equal volume of Italian gesso (calcium sulfate), also from Natural Pigments. I added the gesso by sifting it slowly into the melted glue mixture and letting it wet out before adding the next bit. Once the gesso was in the pot and all hydrated, I stirred carefully with a small whisk to blend it all together. That created the gesso grosso, which was laid on the panel in a somewhat thicker layer and smoothed with an offset spatula or a wooden slice (see Daniel Thompson's book The Practice of Tempera Painting referenced below). For gesso sottile, I added a bit less gesso so that the mixture was like heavy cream. The gesso sottile was brushed on and then smoothed with a spatula. Each coat was allowed to dry to the point of having no surface sheen, then the next layer added. I put on 5 layers of gesso sottile. Oh, and all the gesso was strained through a double layer of cheesecloth before application, and kept warm in the double boiler between coats. The finished gesso surface is probably a little harder than it needs to be, but I thought it would be preferable to err on the harder side than make the gesso too soft.

My reference for gesso application was mostly from Daniel V. Thompson's great book on egg tempera painting, The Practice of Tempera Painting, Materials and Methods.

Once the gesso was totally dry (I gave it a week), I sanded the panel smooth and scraped the surface (with a steel scraper from Natural Pigments) to a slight sheen. Then it was sealed with a very dilute mixture of denatured alcohol and clear shellac, and was ready to prime. For the priming, I used white lead ground in walnut oil to a fairly thick paste, and thinned it to a nice brushable consistency with gum turpentine. The priming was applied with a wide sable brush, then smoothed with a fan blender. The surface dried practically free of brush strokes. Some authorities suggest letting the panel season for 6 months to a year before beginning work, and others say there's no empirical evidence to support that practice. I opted to start with no wait period. Because I'm impatient like that.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Test Panel Underpainting

This is the test panel after a little more progress on the underpainting. I softened many of the lines from the initial burnt umber draw-in, feeling they were too definite to allow for much sfumato type modeling to happen over them. On the hero panel, I've decided to modify this approach and do my initial block in with pale gray washes, then selecting which areas to sharpen with an umber line and a fine brush. I'll add a richer ocher wash over this entire panel, I think, and build shadows from there. In the intermediate steps, I'll lay in opaque colors in some areas and finish them by modeling glazes over the top to bring out depth and form.

Of course, a certain amount of this is speculation, and I'll make appropriate adjustments as I go.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Test Panel is Underway!

Well, after almost 10 months of waiting and prep, today I transferred the drawing over to the test panel and officially began applying paint to panel. I used a tracing of an enlarged infrared photo of the Mona Lisa as the basis for the cartoon I used to transfer onto the panel. I rubbed the back of the tracing paper with charcoal, and taped the cartoon in place and transferred the drawing to the panel. I then used a fine brush and burnt sienna oil paint and permanently drew the lines onto the panel. I'll let the paint dry, then wash off any remaining charcoal. I've uploaded a picture of the panel as it looks now.

Which leads me to the next group of pictures.

I decided to post these to point out the differences in technique between my preliminary panel and the way the paintings will progress on the real panels. The painting will be done by doing a more traditional approach than what I did for my preliminary panel. Tradition dictates that a painting is done by first doing a complete monochromatic underpainting, then layering glazes of color over the underpainting. The preliminary panel, which is the panel upon which I tested paint formulations, was done alla prima, as the sequential photos show. I used mostly 1" disposable brushes to do the preliminary painting and of course will use more refined brushes for the final piece.˙Anyway, the progression shown above is, from left to right, the preliminary panel with various types of gesso treatment applied; the panel with rough planes blocked in (testing oil colors I ground); refining the rough paint-in; And the panel as far as It was taken. The oils were used both thinned with walnut oil, and made into a glaze using sanderac varnish. All tests were suitably successful for me to feel confident moving on to the final panels

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Panel Prep Is Nearly Complete!

I thought I'd post a few pictures as the panels near completion of the gesso/surfacing/priming phase, and are nearly ready to transfer the cartoon onto to begin the painting(s)! Below is a shot of the gesso sottile on the panel. This is the fifth layer of gesso sottile, applied with a brush and leveled with a scraper.

As you can see, the surface has lots of irregularities that need leveling. After the panel dried, I sanded it smooth and scraped the final surface to eliminate any marks left by the sandpaper. That smooth, flat surface was sealed with a dilute mixture of clear shellac and denatured alcohol and allowed to dry, then a thin layer of lead white priming was applied. I also applied a second coating of lead white to the test panel. In the picture below, you can see the panels side by side. The panel on the left is the test panel. (Note the uneven surface...this is a result of having NOT put a sealer down before the walnut oil in the lead white came in contact with the surface. The hero panel on the right has a much more uniform finish.

Now, the panels will dry at least a week. once the panels are both dry, I'll likely do one last layer of priming, then I'll transfer the cartoon onto the panels and begin painting. The cartoon wil be rubbed on the back with powdered charcoal and traced onto the panels, then redrawn with umber oil paint. The picture below shows the cartoon taped in place over the test panel. You can see the (drawn) edges of the real painting, and how they align with the frame and panel beneath. I'm not convinced that the top edge is correct in my tracing, and have adjusted it on the final cut of the panel and the cut of the frame.

The image of the painting I liked for my cartoon was an infrared shot. It seemed to show more details of the piece that are usually hidden in shadow, such as the form of the entire chair Lisa is sitting in, and the structural elements of the parapet behind her. There's also a lot of detail in her figure and dress that isn't easily deciphered in other photos of the painting.

After the priming dries, I'll get pictures up of the work as it progresses ASAP!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Second time's a charm. (I hope!)

The hero panel has been re-gessoed! Hopefully it'll dry well, and will be sanded smooth next weekend. I tried a little something different with the process this time, ordering Italian rabbit skin glue to mix the gesso. It's an interesting product; darker thatn the stuff I'd been using, but lightens considerably when hydrated and melted. I applied the gesso with a wide brush and smoothed it with a thin, flexible scraper so that hopefully sanding will be minimized.
Once it's dry and smooth, I'll need to seal and prime the surface. In cross sections of Leonardo's work, it appears as though there's not a sealer between the gesso and the white lead layer. On my test panel, I tried applying a thin coat of white lead directly to the smoothed gesso surface. The walnut oil in the paint seems to have penetrated the gesso layer and stained it darker. I'm also thinking that it may compromise some of the gesso's strength. So, even though there doesn't seem to be any evidence of it in the magnified cross sections I've seen, I'm planning on making a dilute solution of white shellac (which is really CLEAR shellac) and denatured alcohol.I'll brush that over the gesso surface to seal it and protect it from the oil layers that'll be applied over it.
The lead white on the test panel is drying slowly, of course. It's a thin layer that I applied with a wide brush, then used a fan blender to smooth so that it's practically free of brush strokes. SInce Leonardo's technique was to use many thin colored glazes of paint to achieve the illusion of depth on his paintings, the underlying surfaces have to be as perfectly smooth as possible. Every step requires more research and intense focus.
The oil penetration on the test panel means I'm researching possible reformulations of the white lead priming to make a highly pigmented, thin and somewhat porous paint for priming the hero panel once it's smooth. I'll be having to grind more lead white paint soon, so I'll likely try some experiments with additives to the paint to give it the desired opacity, thinness and absorbency. One possible configuration will be to mix lead white pigment with the powdered gesso mixture I've been collecting as I sand the panels. I'm not sure what properties this will lend the primer, but that's the nature of experimentation, no?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Success!! ...sort of.

Well, after a week or so of diligently scraping down and smoothing the gessoed wood panels, in accordance to the traditional method, I was dismayed at making such slow progress.
The test panel developed a small crack in what I had planned as the top of the painting, almost like the crack that the real painting has that goes from the edge of the painting to the top of Lisa's head. I thought that I might as well try a non-traditional method of smoothing the gesso layer on that panel, and stocked up on various grades of sandpaper.
This morning, I got out my trusty palm sander, plugged it in and sanded away. I used 100 grit to smooth the gesso, and 220 and 600 to finish. It's BEAUTIFUL. Not without flaws, but one can see why the old masters used this surface for painting. It's snow white and smooth as glass. I had thought about doing a few passes over the panel with 1000 grit paper, but it's not supposed to be too shiny. The layer has small pinholes in it from the gesso being stirred too vigorously and standing on the heat too long, but I'm hoping they won't be noticeable in the final painting. And this is the test panel, after all. When I redo the gesso on the hero panel, I'll be more aware of those issues. I also decided that I'll invert the panel and put the crack at the bottom in the darker areas of the painting.
The hero panel has such severe cracking at the joint between the panel and the frame that it'll have to be stripped and redone. It's got damp rags on the surface now, and I should be able to scape off the gesso this evening. I've ordered new supplies and will re gesso that panel once things arrive.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Gesso-ing!

Here's the first picture of the hero wood panel after a gesso grosso (a thicker undercoat of gesso) layer and five coats of gesso sotille (which is a thinner, surfacing gesso). I'm hoping that it'll dry nicely. There's a bit of grit in the gesso sotille that I'm not crazy about. If it sands out well, then I'll be satisfied. If not, I'll be removing the gesso and starting again! The panel as shown has been cut and shaped to the right size and put into a pine frame constructed like the flexible oak frame the actual painting is supported by. And of course the test panel is seen in the background. from this point if all goes well, the panel will be smoothed to a totally perfect surface and primed with lead white, and the drawing of the subject transferred to the panel. Then it's ink and underpaint time!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Let the Project Begin!

So, I'm back in LA, my wood panels have passed muster, and I've begun the project in earnest!

I've cut my test panel down to the final dimensions, and am ready to cut the favored panel to the same dimensions. I found that when I enlarged plates from the Mona Lisa book, the enlargements weren't correct. The length was right, but the width was a half inch too narrow according to published dimensions of the painting. After some head scratching, I decided that unless the camera with which the photos were taken was EXACTLY parallel to the surface of the painting, some distortion would occur in the image. I adjusted the plates in Photoshop using the tilt tool to eliminate the distortions, but then wanted to be sure that the panel would still be relatively square in spite of its uneven edges. I cut the first panel, then built a frame for it to check the panel's fit. It looked pretty good!

I'll now cut the actual panel to size (let's call it the hero panel) and build frames for each (the test and the hero panel) to keep the panels from warping during the priming and painting processes. The state of the Mona Lisa's panel shows that it was most likely primed and painted in a frame attached to the wood panel as it came from a guild carpenter for painting. I'll be recreating that in mine, of course.

I've noticed that the hero panel began to cup slightly almost immediately after I uncrated the panels. The warping is similar to what the actual painting is doing, so I'm oddly encouraged by this!

I'll be applying sizing and applying gesso to the panels soon. And be ready for progress pictures!

I'll also be shooting videos of the work in progress and posting those as I go.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Wood Panels Have SHIPPED!

This is a photograph of the (2) wood panels cut and finished by Smith Lumber in Pennsylvania. The panel on the left is a very close match in grain pattern to the panel used for the Mona Lisa. This will likely be the favored panel for the painting, with the panel on the right relegated to secondary status. There were some problems along the way, but the panel are cut, finished and shipped. I'll do the final trimming and start the ground preparation SOON!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Things I learned on the way to learning other things....

Okay. The journey takes as long as the journey takes, eh?

I'm currently awaiting the wood panels (STILL) from the lumberyard in PA. This is fine, as I'm out of town anyway, working on a zombie TV series to make money to make art. I've spent some of my free time researching renaissance frames, egg tempera, and classical treatises on painting. Here's what I've found so far.

I'm trying to get into the mindset of an artist trained in traditional painting techniques and working with new, experimental materials. Leonardo was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio when he was about 14, from what I recall. He likely was trained by the maestro to use techniques catalogued by Cennino Cennini in his treatise on painting. This would include the selection and preparation of a wood panel as a support, the application of the paint layer (which was traditionally the fast-drying egg tempera paint rather than slower drying oil paint, which was only just coming into use in Leonardo's time). So, artists of Leonardo's day would likely prepare wood panels in the method used for tempera. That is to say, using a glue gesso on a wood support. Canvas wasn't used for egg tempera, since traditional gesso would flake off the surface. Gesso wasn't a flexible ground. So wood panels were preferred as a painting support.

Next was the application of egg tempera paint. Since egg tempera was a fast-drying water thinned medium, its properties dictated the method painters used. Application needed to be in thin, transparent layers over a very detailed underpainting. Leonardo used egg tempera in early paintings, and that work likely shaped the technique he ultimately used for oil paintings like the Mona Lisa. Even in tempera works, Leonardo applied his trademark sfumato, or smokiness which characterized his paintings throughout his lifetime. I can imagine that Leonardo used a very similar technique regardless of medium, so that his work had a consistent feel.

What does that mean to The Mona Project?

That I've begun to research egg tempera as well as the other things I'm learning, to try to ascertain what techniques Leonardo may have applied in each medium. I've also begun to read Cennino Cennini's treatise on painting, which was, according to some, the gospel as regarded painting in renaissance-era Italy. I'll see if I need to modify any of my preparation or painting techniques to bring me more in line with renaissance standards. And of course, always comparing things to the research compiled in Mona Lisa: Inside the Painting, just to be as accurate as possible in the final product.

Oh, I was told by the lumberyard that my wood panels were jobbed out to an Amish guy to kiln dry. I sort of like that idea. More in keeping with what would have been done 500 years ago, I imagine. The panels are supposed to come out of the oven today, and be shipped soon! I hopefully will have them waiting when I get back to LA.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Wood's in the oven!

I got a confirmation that the cut wood panels are drying and will be shipped around July 6th! Almost time to paint!!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


I figured I'd put up a shot of the frame sculpture so far. This is clay over a wood form. This will be molded, and castings of this will be used to build the pattern for the frame moulding. The moulding will be cast up in 6 foot long sections, and cut to fit the painting. The pattern is slightly different on the top and bottom than the sides, and this will be accounted for in the pattern piece.

The final frame will most likely be a thin plaster layer cast over clear pine or a similar wood, and gold leafed.

I'll be researching more about frame construction as I go, and of course I'll try to be accurate with my construction methods to the period and to the original frame.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Testing, testing...

Well, okay. I've been testing materials, so I decided to post a shot of my test. This is on plywood, testing the ground layers and an emulsion layer along with hand ground oil paints and a new glazing medium. The ground layer is gesso, a pretty traditional ground for tempera painting, which moved into use for oil painting as well, since oil was a pretty new medium 500 years ago. Painting grounds in Italy at the time were usually made using a glue derived from parchment scraps soaked in water to which whiting, in the form of calcium sulphate, was added. I made mine from rabbit skin glue (parchment scraps are pieces of animal hides) and calcium sulphate. I applied 2 or 3 layers of that gesso. I sealed half that surface with an emulsion ground of gesso mixed with water and lead white pigment. The (VERY rough) painting above shows the supposed colors that were used to paint the Mona Lisa. Spectral analysis of the paint surface was used to identify minerals in the paint layer. I bought as many of the pigments identified as I could locate. Then I mixed my paints using powdered pigments and grinding them with a muller into walnut oil. I packaged the mixed paints into tubes. The last thing I wanted to research and test was a glazing medium, since it's pretty well accepted that Leonardo (and pretty much every renaissance artist) painted a monochromatic underpainting, then laid transparent glazes of color over that to finish their work. The glaze medium I tested is made from Sanderac varnish (Juniper resin) and walnut oil. A passage from Leonardo's notebooks mentions these materials, and it seemed a good place to start.

My plan is to paint the piece as it may have looked when it was newly finished. Then, I'll apply a colored varnish to seal and finish the painting. The second picture with this post is a Photoshopped version of the picture of the test painting with a darkening layer over it.

This gives me an idea of how accurate the underlying colors are. Not too bad so far!

And, I have to include my disclaimer. I know the drawing of the painting and the color blends are not correct in my test panel. I wasn't trying to be dead on in appearance at this stage, just testing materials.

(As a side note, the test painting is on a chunk of plywood that also had a large amount of Karo syrup stage blood all down one side of the panel. THAT'LL be interesting once the red starts showing through the paint!)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Hurrier I Go...

I guess that not writing for a spell is a sure sign that I'm researching my brains out! I've been busy combing the web for as much information and materials as I could get my hands on.
I've found a supplier of natural pigments, called, appropriately enough, Natural Pigments, that has nearly every renaissance era oil painting supply that one could hope for. I used the book I've mentioned as my reference point and listed, according to spectral analysis, the pigments Leonardo used on the Mona Lisa. I've bought raw pigments and ground them into paint using walnut oil as my medium. My sources tell me that Leonardo used walnut oil as well.
From the same supplier, I've gotten Italian Gesso (calcium sulfate). This will be mixed into a solution of hide glue and painted on the poplar panels. I've tested the gesso and oils on plywood panels of the correct size while I'm waiting for the real panels form the lumberyard back east. I've also tested a few formulations of emulsion grounds to use as an intermediate layer between the gesso and paint.
Recently, I did some research on possible glazing media for oil. Something which Leonardo might have used. One article I read about renaissance mediums included a tranlation from one of Leonardo's notebooks in which he specifies juniper resin mixed with walnut oil as a good varnish. Information I've found from various sources indicates that a resin mixed with oil and turpentine is a good general formulation for a glaze meduim. I have sandarac (juniper) resin on order along with unfiltered walnut oil to test as a possible glaze medium.

In addition, I've been doing as much scrutinizing and researching of the actual painting as possible. There are MANY subtleties that will be very challenging to pull off. Even though Lisa isn't wearing any jewelry, she is covered in silk veils. her hair, shoulders and upper arms are all covered with see-through, filmy material. Fine, fine black silk gauze. Did I mention that Lisa's husband is a silk merchant? All that silk is no accident...

This will definitely be challenging to paint!

The general sequence will be:

2 coats of gesso
perhaps a layer of emulsion ground
lead white priming
yellow ocher imprimatura
underdrawing with copper acetate
underpainting with burnt umber and white lead
glazing and finishing

Leonardo's technique was so refined as to be invisible. Conservators frequently mention the complete absence of brush strokes on Leonardo's paintings.

I'll be doing 2 copies simultaneously. One will be aged, and the second left to appear as the Mona Lisa may have looked new. Each will be framed, as the real painting is, in a flexible oak frame and a decorative frame.

I'll post pictures as soon as I've started!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


I had somewhat of an epiphany. I was looking at Leonardo's paintings of The Adoration of the Magi, and Saint Jerome in the Wilderness. Both are unfinished paintings, both very familiar to me. Saint Jerome is EXACTLY the same color palette as the Mona Lisa. In looking at both paintings, one can see much of Leonardo's process. I'll document and post in process photos of the painting as it progresses. It appears from the unfinished works of Leonardo that he first drew in the outlines of figures in light gray paint, then sharpened up the drawing with a thin brush, outlining the final composition in umber. He then would use white (probably lead white) to paint in highlights and begin modelling forms. In The Adoration of the Magi, he also painted in darks fairly soon in the process, probably to get a feel for the composition early on in the process.

I'm continuing on sculpting the frame, and will begin materials tests soon!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What ME wait??

Well, I've begun work on other aspects of the project while waiting for the poplar panels to ship. There are quite a few aspects to this project! The painting will likely be the least unfamiliar territory, and because of this, will likely be the "easiest" part of the process. THERE, I've cursed it now!!
Anyway, as to what's been occupying my time lately. I've scanned images of the Mona Lisa framed and unframed, front and back, into my computer and sized them to the specifications given in the excellent book Mona Lisa Inside the Painting. The final piece is about 20.5 inches wide and 31 inches tall. framed, it actually looks pretty good sized. The frame is about 5 inches wide and very ornate. In Photoshop, I isolated a section of frame and shopped for molding pieces that gave the proper shape to the frame molding (see the accompanying picture of the moulding test layup). I cut and glued up the pieces into a section that I'm sculpting the frame detail on to. I've discovered that the painting is actually in two frames. The first is a flexible oak frame that is braced across the back with sycamore pieces that keeps the painting support from warping. This frame is hidden beneath the second frame, which is the decorative frame. The picture with the first post shows the decorative frame. After the frame detail is sculpted to my satisfaction, I'll mold the frame section and manufacture about 12 feet of frame that I can cut and assemble into the final frame.
I've also been reading a LOT of technical books about pigments and painting techniques of the Renaissance, I'll certainly be busy in the months waiting for the panels to dry. I need to test sizing and gesso formulae and find and purchase pigments and decide on and test painting media and glazing techniques. I got an A in Art History when I did my copy of the Mona Lisa 30 years ago, but THIS one is going to be a MUCH better product.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

First Things...well...FIRST!

My feeling at the outset was that unless a suitable poplar panel could be obtained, that the project wasn't worth pursuing. I cast around for a while looking at various lumber yards on and offline, asking about the possibility of getting a solid poplar panel measuring 22"W x 32"H x 1/2"D. No one supplied such a wide one-piece panel. There were plenty of plywood panels, or modern painter's panels that are cradled by a framework of pre-fab supports, or glued-up panels. No one had or offered a one-piece solid poplar panel that size.

Then, I found a Pennsylvania lumberyard online named Smith Lumber, that has its own sawmill. Intrigued, I wrote an e-mail asking about the chances of getting a custom panel of the size I need. No reply. Damn!

Then, probably a couple of weeks answer. They COULD do such a panel, if I was not in a hurry. It'd take 2-3 months to dry in the kiln, they explained. I wrote back immediately and assured them that I was in NO hurry. And as a matter of fact, I'd like TWO panels! (I figure this way, I can choose the one with the better grain to do the painting upon.) I'll likely end up doing 2 paintings and photographing the better of the 2 for the blog pictures. This approach also gives me a test painting upon which I can try different techniques and formulae.

But I digress.

After my correspondence with Smith Lumber, I ordered 2 poplar wood panels. They've been cut, I believe, and are drying now.

And so I wait.

Pre-History and Introduction

I began to learn to paint at age 12. My parents bought me a small set of acrylic paints, I think it was for my birthday, and I accepted this gift greedily! The first painting I attempted was a portrait of my brother, Steve. The flesh tones were entirely too red, but the seeds for a lifelong study of the human face and anatomy were sown in that first experiment.

Through the years, my quest for painter heroes led me to the study of the works of Leonardo da Vinci. He was, in my teen estimation, the irrefutable champion of painting. His draftsmanship, his use of color and sfumato, chiaroscuro, and all those other mysterious sounding Italian words hooked me like an eager trout. I immersed myself in study, trying to emulate what I understood of the maestro's method and technique. I took a small sketchbook with me everywhere, and drew relentlessly. If Leonardo had drawn botanical studies, complete with copius notes, I was determined that I would, too. I became a student of the visual all around me. And yes, I learned to write backwards in a cursive style like Leonardo.

And I painted. At first on canvas panels bought from the local art supplier, then pre-made stretched canvasses, and finally, on hand-stretched, self-primed canvasses of my own construction. Religious subjects provided an opportunity to paint the figure and portraits of a sort, and were what the Masters Of Old had painted time after time. I graduated to oil painting during this time as well, and still own the wooden paint box and easel that my parents bought for me 40 years ago.

During these formative years, I also aspired to copy renaissance artwork as well, frequently choosing my favorite da Vinci works to replicate. I used these copies as learning tools, trying to replicate not just the finished surface of the work, but learning lessons in underpainting and glazing, trying recipes for different media.

When I was about 16, my dad (who had a pretty sly sense of humor) told me that he was amused by the concept of a middle-class family having the Mona Lisa hanging in their home. Someone would walk in the front door, and there's THE MONA LISA! I didn't quite get it. How could anyone have the real Mona Lisa in their home? It's in the Louvre! But I appreciated the chance to do a copy of a da Vinci! And at 16, I was too young to be terribly daunted by the task. It turned out to be a crude effort, of course, based as it was on the books and reference I had available to me in Montana at the time. I painted it on a 16"x20" canvas panel from reference that was VERY blue. I think it took me a week to finish.

And there it was. The ill-proportioned, blue Mona Lisa. Hanging over the fountain in our living room. Fooling no one.

But, it was the first painting of mine that my parents actually framed and hung in the family home!

In college, I again tried my hand at Mona, this time as an Art History final project. We were to re-create a famous painting; researching the techniques and methods used by the original artist and doing as faithful a copy as we could. I ended up using a masonite panel, cut to the proper size, and painted in oils using glazes and media better researched than my first attempt. I even tried to recreate the cracking on the original work. This painting hung in my parent's living room until my father passed away, when the painting was given by me to my brother Glenn. After his death, My sister Gretchen has been the guardian.

All of this past history has led me to The Mona Project. I recently purchased a pretty thorough book about the Mona Lisa called Mona Lisa Inside The Painting. The book has amazing photographs of the painting unframed, front and back, describing the work in great detail.

I was inspired to do yet another copy.

This time, the goal is to make the final product as close to the original piece as possible. I'll be painting on a poplar panel, using materials and techniques as close to the real thing as possible, based on all current knowledge that I can unearth. I'll reproduce the frame as well, and the system of braces that are used on the actual piece. My intention is to recreate, as closely as possible, front and back, including the intricately carved frame, a replica of Leonardo's masterpiece. The ultimate collectible.

Welcome to The Mona Project.